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While no medication can cure the flu or a cold, plenty of drugs can help you feel better. What should you know?

The fact that there aren’t any drugs that can cure your flu or cold doesn't mean there's nothing you can do to feel better while you're fighting these bugs off — and your trusty stash of OTC painkillers is just the tip of the iceberg. What other over the counter medications might your pharmacist suggest? Knowledge is power, and in this case the power to stock up so your medicine cabinet is already full when you need it. (Maybe you can do that while you're getting your annual flu shot!)

Step One: Analgesics

Analgesics — painkillers — are of course the first thing you think of when you're fighting a flu or a particularly severe cold. Not only do they help you with aches, pains, and headaches, they also bring your fever down. 

You can take:

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol, paracetamol) — the standard recommended dose for adults is 1000 mg, taken in two tablets. This medication is safe for most people, including those who are expecting a baby or breastfeeding. Be aware that it can take up to an hour to start working. 
  • Ibuprofen is a commonly used NSAID, meaning it fights inflammation as well as pain and fever. The standard recommended dose is 650 mg, again taken over two tablets, but it kicks in faster, up to 30 minutes after you take it. Naproxen is another commonly used NSAID.
  • Aspirin used to be used more commonly. It should be avoided in children because of the risk of the very dangerous Reye's syndrome — some countries even suggest anyone under 17 should not take Aspirin. 
It's always good to have a chat with your doctor about over the counter painkillers, because nearly everyone occasionally uses them, when you happen to have an appointment. Some OTC analgesics may not be safe for you if you have certain medical conditions or use certain prescription medications. 

Antihistamines for nasal congestion

Antihistamines help fight nasal congestion. You could try an antihistamine like Diphenhydramine (Benadryl), Zyrtec, Xyzal, or Allegra. Do be aware that these drugs may make you feel sleepy or drowsy, so you won’t want to drive or do anything else that requires your full attention while on them. Loratadine (Claritin)  is one antihistamine that doesn’t make you feel sleepy, although it doesn't work as well as some other antihistamines when it comes to treating the cold and flu.

Decongestants to ease your clogged nose

Decongestants come in the form of pills, nasal sprays, nose drops, and liquids. Pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) is one example. The potential side effects of decongestants include:

  • Nervousness
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia.

People who are pregnant or have high blood pressure shouldn’t take medications that contain pseudoephedrine.

Nasal Steroids: Relief for your runny nose

Nasal steroids can ease your sinus pressure and offer relief from a runny nose. These drugs include mometasone (Nasonex) and fluticasone (Flonase). You can also take these drugs for seasonal allergies.

Expectorants to make you cough more

Expectorants make you cough more, but that can be a good thing as you want to get rid of all that phlegm. Expectorants can dilute the dense green or yellow mucus you may experience when you have a cold. You could ask your pharmacist for guaifenesin (Mucofen, Humibid E, Humibid LA, Robitussin, Mucinex).

Cough suppressants: Antitussives

Antitussives are used to help you find relief from a relentless cough. Dextromethorphan may help you suppress a cough, but there is no definite proof that over-the-counter cough drugs have the ability to make you cough less.

Throat lozenges to ease your sore throat

Cepacol is one example of a throat lozenge — a small, candy-like tablet with an analgesic designed to soothe and hydrate your throat and put a temporary stop to coughing. If you are looking for a natural way to ease your sore throat, you can try gargling with some salt water a couple of times a day.

Prevention is still better than cure: Your flu shot

There's no vaccine to protect us against the common cold (which is actually more than 200 different viruses), but getting a flu shot is still the best flu "treatment" out there. While it "only" drastically lowers your risk of catching the flu rather than definitely preventing flu , your symptoms will still be a lot milder if you've been vaccinated. Two different options exist:

  • The flu shot contains dead flu viruses which sets the production of antibodies in motion. 
  • The nasal spray contains live, weakened flu viruses — and is only intended for healthy children and adults aged 2-49. It is not suitable for you if you’re pregnant.

Antiviral prescription medicines for the flu

Antiviral medications for the flu can be prescribed to shorten the duration of the flu and to reduce the severity of your symptoms. They work best if they're prescribed and taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms, and can help prevent serious complications. It is especially important for vulnerable groups of people, like the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions, to seek help right away. Most healthy people will not need these medications. 

Examples of prescription medicines used to manage the flu include:

  • Amantadine (Symmetrel)
  • Rimantadine (Flumadine)
  • Zanamivir (Relenza)
  • Oseltamivir (Tamiflu).

Antibiotics are NOT for the flu or colds

The flu and colds are caused by viruses rather than bacteria, and you shouldn’t use antibiotics to try to treat them because they can’t. Antibiotics are only for bacterial infections. Some doctors will still prescribe antibiotics for the flu and colds, because patients pressure them to — don't be one of them, or you'll be contributing to the worldwide problem of antibiotic resistance.

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